Sunday, December 3, 2017

CD Review: Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers' More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows (2018)

Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers' More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows
Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Joe Grushecky is a music biz lifer, a survivor whose first band of note – the Iron City Houserockers – delivered four near-perfect albums of intelligent, unbridled rock ‘n’ roll circa 1970-1983. With a sound and lyricism inspired by blue-collar scribes like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger, tho’ often displaying more blues and soul influences, the I.C. guys earned a lot of critical acclaim but few record sales. When the band broke up after being dropped by MCA Records, Grushecky worked on his songwriting chops while pursuing a career as a teacher for “at risk” youths in his hometown of Pittsburgh. He would resurface in 1989 with the album Rock & Real, credited to “Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers.” Minor masterpieces like the Springsteen-produced American Babylon (1995) and True Companion (2004) would follow, yielding great reviews but providing no breakthrough.

After suffering through record deals with both major and minor labels, Grushecky launched his own indie Schoolhouse Records imprint years before many of today’s critically-acclaimed indie-rockers were born. When Grushecky wanted to explore other facets of his music, he recorded solo albums like 2002’s Fingerprints, 2006’s A Good Life, and 2013’s Somewhere East of Eden. He has always drifted back to the Houserockers, though, and this year’s model – More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows – finds Joey G. and cohorts in fine form as they deliver their first studio album together since 2009’s exceptional East Carson Street. In spite of an impressive body of work comprised of better than a dozen studio and live albums, Grushecky remains one of the best-kept secrets in rock music, forever marginalized by his association with a coterie of talented ‘70s-era rockers including Willie Nile and Elliott Murphy and bands like the Del Lords.

Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers’ More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows

From the new album’s title to the music in the grooves, Grushecky seems preoccupied with mortality and morality. Not a sort of Goth kid’s black-eyeliner and mopey obsession with death, but rather that of a middle-aged man staring down, as the title suggests, the reality that their existence holds “more yesterdays than tomorrows.” Turning 60 this year, I’m well aware of the Reaper’s stare – my father made it less than two months past his 60th birthday before passing, my mother a little more than a year and change beyond that before her death. The Oglala Lakota Indian chief Low Dog is famously quoted as saying “today is a good day to die” and I suppose that’s true, but many of us are dragged screaming to the grave. While the specter of death permeates our culture, it’s seldom addressed musically outside of blues and gospel songs.

Opening with the mid-tempo title track, Grushecky ponders the situation with his keen lyrical eye and takes stock of where he sits in life. Rather than mourning the days behind him, the singer’s joy at each “brand new day” soars atop a transcendent guitar solo and jangly instrumentation. Never a quitter, Grushecky wears his scars proudly as he soldiers on, headfirst, into whatever tomorrow has to bring. His reverie broken by reality’s intrusion, Grushecky launches into “Got To Go To Work Today,” a no-frills rocker with more than a little boogie backbeat hidden beneath the din. Burnishing his blue collar bona fides, Grushecky creates a protagonist who begrudgingly accepts his fate, the songwriter’s vague description of the workplace spinning a tale of an everyman’s curse, albeit one set to stinging guitar solos and clamorous rhythms.

That’s What Makes Us Great

Released earlier this year as a single, “That’s What Makes Us Great” is an incredible duet with Joe’s buddy Bruce (as in Springsteen), the song itself a call to arms for those resisting the loss of our country to greedy businessmen and craven politicians, the slipping away of the American dream to jackboots of fear and hate as refugees in need are turned away in our ignorance and the country itself seems under siege. The words are sung passionately, Grushecky and Springsteen’s voices surrounded by chaotic instrumentation, clanging guitar licks sounding like the Liberty Bell ringing the chimes of freedom.

Both men realize that we’re collectively witnessing a brutal turning point in our nation’s savage history, the song asking “is there a difference I can make,” its creators choosing love above all else in what may be Springsteen’s most overtly political statement yet (and I’m sure that I’m not alone in wishing that Bruce would record a full album with Joey G and the Houserockers). If “That’s What Makes Us Great” is an unabashed rocker with a political edge that pulls few punches, “Burn Us Down” is the body-builder’s roid-rage – a muscular, feverish, powerful cry from the darkness, the song’s bluesy undercurrent matched by Grushecky’s anguished vocals and empathetic, electrifying fretwork, both aspects of the song perfectly capturing the angst-ridden zeitgeist suffered by at least half of the country.

Joe Grushecky, Bruce Springsteen & the Houserockers
Joe Grushecky, Bruce Springsteen & the Houserockers, photo by John Cavanaugh

Blood Sweat and Beers

Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers have frequently been referred to as the best “bar band” in America, but they’ve always been much more than that. The core of the band has been playing together for decades, long past the point where rock ‘n’ roll dreams are realized, talented musicians reveling in the mere act of music-making. They’re professionals by any standard, with a lengthy history of thousands of performances and a couple dozen albums trailing in their wake. Grushecky and the Houserockers are the standard to which a “bar band” should aspire, but that doesn’t mean the Joe and his gang haven’t torn up a tavern a time or two. Grushecky isn’t above using a bar setting for a song, either (“Junior’s Bar” comes to mind), and “Blood Sweat and Beers” is really just a country song waiting for the addition of steel guitar to strut shamelessly down Nashville’s ‘Music Row’. A classic barroom tearjerker set to a twangy, rollicking rhythm, the singer lays out his romantic woes in a manner that would make ol’ Hank proud.

From haunting, 1970s-styled Southern-fried riffs and wiry fretwork to gorgeous, ethereal backing vocals, Grushecky imbues “The Voice” with an undeniable Stax soul sound. Singing above muted rhythms with his underrated, soul-drenched vox, Grushecky creates an incredibly charming vibe for a song that, lyrically, offers a light that pierces the darkness, the cosmos reaffirming that our inner strength and moral compass will win out in the end. A sort of thematic bookend to “The Voice,” the wonderfully poetic and insightful “Work In Progress” offers up a positive message riding upon an infectious melody with self-aware lyrics that are applicable to any of our lives, the reckless abandon of pure rock ‘n’ roll creating what would be a surefire hit if corporate radio – with its crippling playlists and overly-conservative consultants – hadn’t neutered the airwaves. Nevertheless, “Work In Progress” is a completely joyful slab of classic rock music.

Hell To Pay

With syncopated guitar licks, squealing six-strings, and explosive percussion pounding out a tribal Bo Diddly beat, Grushecky’s mesmerizing vocals leap out of the wall of sound with a sense of urgency on “Hell To Pay” as he sings of wasted lives and lost opportunities, praying for “love to conquer hate” and surmising that “something’s gotta change” or else there’ll be “hell to pay.” The addition of a wailing sax to the arrangement is sheer genius, the instrument offering a strident, sobbing counterpoint to the Bacchanalian instrumentation that bangs and crashes in the background, running amok as society burns. As many of us do, Grushecky sees a country that has strayed from its core values, teetering on the edge of decline with a conman at the helm.

Grushecky’s thoughts turn back to mortality with a contemporized cover of the 1930s-era gospel song “Ain’t No Grave,” which has most notably been recorded by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Johnny Cash. Grushecky brings a gospel-blues spirit to the well-worn song with energetic acoustic guitar strum and locomotive blasts of high-lonesome harmonica before the entire band kicks in to take the song to the Promised Land, turning the performance from a plaintive plea to a tent-show revival complete with glossolalia. More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows closes with the acoustic “Don’t Mourn For Me Like That,” a hauntingly beautiful song where the protagonist says ‘goodbye’ to his loved one with words of reassurance and kindness, the belief in “today is a good day to die” reimagined as a gossamer ballad.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Forty years since the creation of the Iron City Houserockers, Joe Grushecky continues to create vital, complex music that is lyrically eloquent and relevant while remaining timeless in scope. After so many years, Grushecky continues to find new ways to express his muse in song, and while time-to-time he may revisit familiar themes that he first touched upon years ago, he does so with new perspective and insight. The music shows surprising instrumental flourishes that prove that old dogs can learn new tricks, and Grushecky’s status as an unheralded guitar hero is embellished by his fiery performances here.

More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows is an entertaining, exciting work that takes full advantage of the Houserockers’ immense musical chemistry – forged by decades of hard knocks and a shared faith in the religion of rock ‘n’ roll – to create a wonderful collection of songs that rock recklessly but pump the brakes when needed. Reunited with his longtime band after a handful of solo albums, Grushecky displays a renewed fervor and commitment to rock music as both soapbox and as a catalyst for social change. With More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows, Grushecky delivers a career milestone, outdoing himself once again. Grade: A+ (Schoolkids Records, released February 2018)

Get More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows through the band’s PledgeMusic crowdfunding effort

Related content:
Joe Grushecky’s It’s In My Song CD review
Joe Grushecky and the HouserockersAmerican Babylon Live CD review 


Hank S. said...

Joe's legacy continues and continues....and we fans benefit.

MULK said...

Kudos Reverend! Your eloquent words honor a great artist, who has never failed to deliver as a songwriter, musician and bandleader. There may be more yesterdays than tomorrows however, I look forward to and will relish each and every remaining recording and performance provided by Joe and his gifted bandmates. The entertainment and inspiration continues to enhance the lives it touches. The anticipation of dropping the needle on a new Grushecky release still thrills as it has for so many yesterdays!